With climate change at the top of the national agenda, TV productions of all stripes are greening their operations from top to bottom
In 2007, Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., made green headlines.
After screening “An Inconvenient Truth” at the behest of his son James, he declared that the company would become carbon neutral by 2010. Murdoch put the word out to his employees, and the mandate trickled down through management to Fox TV chair Dana Walden, who began looking around for a show to green.
She had plenty of candidates to choose from, many of which would have made relatively easy test cases, like “How I Met Your Mother” or “House.” One show, however — “24” — was definitely not on that list. The long-running hit counterterrorism series is heavy on explosions and car crashes, and the cast and crew often shoot on location — all of which equates to significant carbon emissions.
But Walden chose “24” anyway, because the seeds of the show’s green evolution were planted years ago, not in the mind of Murdoch, but in the marriage of executive producer Howard Gordon.
Gordon’s wife, Cambria, co-authored the 2007 book “The Down to Earth Guide to Global Warming” with wenvironmentalist Laurie David, and for many years, Gordon says, his wife had tried to convince him to change his attitude toward climate change and what he could do about it as an individual.
“I was pretty cynical,” Gordon says. “In fact, my wife and I have had countless arguments about this, about our own hypocrisy, living the lives we do. We’re not as green as we could be. And then the argument is, ‘Well, are you a hypocrite? Or is doing something better than doing nothing?’ And I didn’t believe for a long time that doing something was better than doing nothing. I’ve really come to believe that doing something is better than doing nothing.”
So Gordon changed his ways. He now calls both himself and his wife “longtime enviros.” And Walden knew that, so when Murdoch issued his green directive, “Dana thought naturally of ’24.’ ” The greening process began, and on March 2 Fox said that “24” would become carbon neutral.
The show’s first step was analysis, “figuring out what constitutes your carbon footprint, and then being able to document that and be open about it,” says 20th Century Fox TV associate director of production Mike Posey. “So News Corp. has been working with a third-party company called ClearCarbon Consulting, and they came in and basically showed us the A through Z of how to calculate that footprint and make sure that you capture everything. … We found out that, like, 96% of our footprint comes from the mobile fuel that we use and the electricity that we have to use to power our sets, so obviously those are the two things that you try to aim for first.”
To that end, Fox purchased four five-ton hybrid vehicles, Posey says, and “started running our trucks and generators on biodiesel. On ’24,’ it ends up working out great because our stages over there could handle it. We could put a tank out back that holds biodiesel fuel, because it’s obviously kind of tough to find it around L.A.; you can’t just pull into any Shell station and fill up with biodiesel, so you have to plan for that ahead of time. So with ’24’ we were able to bring in a tank and put it out back and use it very easily.”
20th Century Fox TV also has leased hybrid vehicles for all of its location managers on all of its production, Posey says. The fleet features 29 hybrids, including Priuses and Civics, and “although a definite number is hard to calculate, we believe this has greatly reduced the amount of fuel used on scouting locations around the Los Angeles area,” he says.
What’s more, Fox runs all onstage production activities with renewable power purchased from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, reducing the show’s carbon footprint by 940 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Overall, green practices have reduced the show’s carbon emissions by 43%.
NBC Universal, which said in November that it would make three of its productions — “Nightly News With Brian Williams,” “Saturday Night Live” and the now-defunct “Lipstick Jungle” (which functioned as NBC’s green pilot program, much like “24” has served as what Posey calls Fox’s green “guinea pig”) — carbon neutral, also has zeroed in on fuel expenditures.
“Energy and fuel-efficient vehicles are obviously at the forefront of the green movement, so (‘Nightly News’ has) an energy-efficient news vehicle, and they also do the same when they travel wherever possible, using hybrid cars and eco-sensitive hotels,” says Beth Colleton, vp Green Is Universal, which she describes as NBC Universal’s “comprehensive effort to mobilize green throughout our organization.”
NBC has dubbed that energy-efficient remote-video news vehicle the “Mean Green Streaming Machine.” The satellite truck is a hybrid Ford Escape that uses tapeless technology, runs on gasoline and electricity and also uses wind turbines and solar panels to recharge its equipment. Unlike typical satellite trucks, which cost between $500,000 and $1 million, the green truck cost roughly $100,000 to purchase and gear up.
As for travel, “Nightly News” obviously can’t avoid going to the location of a breaking story, but its crew is leaving less of a footprint by traveling lighter.
“We’re reporters. We go all over the country and all over the world, so we really have been looking at what we do in terms of our travel. We can do some things (via) remote control, and when we can, we’ll not travel, but when we do, we look at shipping less gear,” executive producer Bob Epstein says.
On a typical shoot, the crew travels with about 17 cases of gear, Epstein says, but one of his cameramen recently reported getting down to eight cases. “Gear is lighter. Things are more transportable. Digital technology has made things smaller,” he explains.
“Nightly News” also has targeted its in-house power usage. “We’re looking at power consumption, shutting off computers, lighting, the whole way we run the office,” Epstein says.
(Still, every show produces some unavoidable emissions, and to mitigate that, Fox and NBC are purchasing quality carbon offsets.)
Additionally, like “24,” “Nightly News” — along with “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” among other NBC productions — has replaced incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs wherever possible, and “24” has installed motion sensors that turn lights off when rooms are unoccupied.
LEDs have proved unexpectedly beneficial on the set of “Late Night,” where the crew had the rare opportunity to green the production from scratch. “One of the first marching orders was to make it a green show,” says Ellen Waggett, who, along with Leo Yoshimori, serves as production designer.
“People are very superstitious about late-night talk shows,” she says, adding that Yoshimori wanted to give the studio the feel of an old theater, and Fallon and the rest of the team felt strongly about incorporating elements that were “imbued with history.” So Waggett took photographs of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s venerable Harvey Theater and Howard Gilman Opera House and used them to illustrate floor-to-ceiling light boxes lit with LED ColorBlasts.
“It’s all backlit, so it has this fabulous glow, and they can change colors,” Waggett says. “LEDs are obviously much more efficient lighting units, and they generate much less heat, so you can build the light boxes in a much simpler way, and you need fewer lights. It’s funny — each step you can green up pretty easily if you just put your mind to it.”
Another important green strategy, especially on the sets of “Late Night” and “24,” has been reuse. The team at “24” is “making sure to use sets as much as you can, to reuse them over and over,” Posey says, and donates used set materials, like columns that are going to a local elementary school.
Where the “Late Night” team needed new materials, they used as much Forest Stewardship Council-certified plywood as possible and carpeted the audience risers and band platform with Mohawk carpet made of recycled plastic bottles. But Waggett was able to incorporate a number of salvaged items, including old windows and doors she found at Build It Green! NYC, a nonprofit retail outlet for surplus and salvaged materials, and old chairs from Radio City Music Hall, which were used for audience seating. “We didn’t even have to have them reupholstered,” she says. Even Fallon’s desk was salvaged; it used to be Yoshimori’s own.
Waggett also found going green to be relatively inexpensive. The salvaged materials were “dirt cheap,” she says, and while she estimates that “building green” costs “20%-40% higher at the outset, there are all kinds of (government, and at NBC, corporate) programs in place that help you amortize that cost pretty quickly.”
Naturally, “Late Night,” “Nightly News” and “24” also are implementing recycling programs and significantly reducing paper usage. At “Nightly News,” says Colleton, “you can imaging how many scripts previously went through that operation, and within probably 36 hours of the conversation of greening ‘Nightly News’ starting, they went to paperless, only doing, I believe, two printouts: the next-to-final and the final script.”
On “24,” Gordon says, they used to print three drafts of each script and messenger them across town multiple times. Now, says Posey, the show uses DocZilla, “an online system that you can distribute, house and store all of our scripts and schedules. Any kind of paper that we would normally be sending across the city we can now e-mail or have people just log in and pull their stuff off as they need it.”
“24’s” actual story lines, however, have proved impervious to greening. “We tried to (mention global warming) in an offhand way” on three separate occasions, Gordon says, but the mentions never even made it to the script stage because “the show doesn’t lend itself to embedding the message in the content.”
Instead, the show is creating PSAs about climate change. “The PSAs have been a great way to express our commitment to this using our actors and their popularity,” Gordon says. “The show’s only politics is a good story, and that’s really our only agenda here. We want to tell a good story in a more carbon-efficient way.”
NBC has had some success with environmental content, weaving eco-themed elements into such shows as “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Top Chef,” “The Biggest Loser” and “Heroes,” among others, during its twice-annual Green Week, which features a host of green-themed programming across NBC Universal’s TV and digital platforms.
And “Nightly News” has committed itself to increasing environmental coverage. “We cover whatever important story there is, and this issue clearly affects the future of the planet,” Epstein says.
In 2007 the show also created a new position — chief environmental correspondent, filled by Anne Thompson — Epstein adds, and produces a segment called “Our Planet,” which features environmental stories that are global in nature, along with additional Web-only environmental content.
But individual actions — whether it’s naming a reporter to an environmental beat, changing light bulbs or using salvaged materials — aren’t going to resolve the crisis of global warming. It’s many individual actions in aggregate that will make the difference.
“I look at a series of concentric circles,” Gordon says. “At the most basic level we’re a cast and crew of 300 people. To spread that kind of awareness, and to make it institutionalized and do something about it for 300 people is a really positive step. The next circle for me is influencing other shows under the Fox banner, under the News Corp. banner. And I think that widens the circle (to) the 300 people on ‘House’ and ‘Prison Break’ and certainly ‘American Idol’ and all these other shows, so I think already now you have a fairly large company of people. And those people hopefully spread their awareness and their behavior out, so that’s the second circle. And the third circle, of course, is we speak to a very large audience, and even if a small group of people are influenced by our behavior, I think then we’ve done great. And if 12 million people see our show, and if this lesson is landing to even a tenth of our audience, that’s over a million people, and I think that’s a great step.
“Changing behavior begets changing behavior,” he adds. “Light bulb by light bulb, people will change their behavior.”
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